Three friends of mine pointed out, independently of one another, that the commercials for “Extraordinary Measures” make it look like a TV movie. This is partially explained by its being a production of CBS Films, the newly formed film branch of the network, but also by its movie-of-the-week subject matter: It’s a tearful melodrama about a father trying to find a cure for his children’s illness. Apart from a few swear words, this could easily air on CBS, warm a few hearts, then be forgotten.
I am pleased to report, though, that it’s not bad. While the genre often lends itself to shameless manipulation, this entry is decent and respectable, earning its tears rather than jerking them. The story — based on the real events chronicled in Geeta Anand’s book “The Cure” and fictionalized by screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs (“Chocolat,” “The Shipping News”) — eventually arrives at the usual destination, but it takes a few unexpected roads to get there. It’s a sappy film that you don’t have to feel too guilty for enjoying.
The father, John Crowley, a Portland pharmaceutical executive, is played by Brendan Fraser, an actor who bleeds sincerity. John and his wife, Aileen (Keri Russell), have three young children, two of whom have a deadly metabolic disorder called Pompe disease. There is no effective treatment, but John believes a university scientist has done the research necessary to develop one, if only he had enough funding. The university would rather put that money toward the football team, naturally.
The scientist is a cranky buzzard named Robert Stonehill, played by a cranky buzzard named Harrison Ford. Crowley’s partnership with him and their efforts to get the money needed to finish his work and concoct the cure comprise the bulk of the film. Crowley knows the business side of pharmaceuticals but not the science side; Stonehill can impress boards of directors with his knowledgeable use of phrases such as “usable enzymes” and “clinical trials,” if he can just keep his misanthropy in check.
No real explanation is ever given for Stonehill’s grumpiness. I get the impression he’s written that way either because movies are “supposed” to have odd couples, or because that’s just the way Harrison Ford showed up on the set. As far as the story is concerned, there’s no particular reason for Stonehill to be cantankerous, except to create false suspense over whether he’ll ruin things for Crowley. The thing is, we know he genuinely wants to help Crowley — the man’s kids’ lives are at stake, for crying out loud — so why doesn’t he tone down his intentionally obnoxious behavior? Blasting classic-rock music after being politely asked by fellow researchers to turn the volume down is unhelpful.
The film gives us a look behind the scenes at the pharmaceutical industry’s research and development levels, with the expected battle over profits versus people — or, as Crowley puts it, “This is not about a return on an investment! It’s about kids! Kids with names!” Crowley’s afflicted ones are named Megan (Meredith Droeger) and Patrick (Diego Velazquez). Megan, the older one, confined to a wheelchair as her muscles and organs fail, is the one assigned by the film to crack through Dr. Stonehill’s shell.
But here I’ve made the film sound more trite than it is. In truth, as directed by Tom Vaughan (“Starter for 10,” “What Happens in Vegas”), it comes across less heavy-handed and more earnest — not “subtle,” exactly, but within the range of mawkishness that is acceptable to humans. Its biggest problem, actually, isn’t its sentimental subject matter but the fact that its middle section drags due to a lull in the story. Other than that, there’s nothing terribly wrong with it, although I still think it would have fit better on TV.
B- (1 hr., 45 min.; )